Sebastian im Traum … The Rite of Spring

Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16 [Original Version]
Violin Concerto, Op.30
Sebastian im Traum [UK premiere]
The Rite of Spring [1943 Version]

Leila Josefowicz (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

An evening of Proms Firsts old and new with two recent works framed by classics of the modern repertoire. Good that the opportunity was taken to perform the original 1909 orchestration of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces as the music’s extremes of intensity and dynamics are best appreciated thus, while also finding a sympathetic context in the Royal Albert Hall acoustic. Keenly though Oliver Knussen emphasised the seething anxiety of ‘Premonitions’ and serrated emotional contrasts of ‘Peripeteia’, it was the disorientated familiarity of ‘The Past’ as well as the tangible remoteness of ‘Chord-colours’ that left the most vivid impression, with the uncoiling momentum of ‘The Obbligato Recitative’ rounding off the sequence by heading off into altogether uncharted expressive realms. A novelty when given its world premiere at the 1912 Proms conducted by Henry Wood, the work has lost little of its provocative element since then and this performance lucidly brought out that quality in renewed measure.

From 95 to just four years ago, there followed a welcome return for Knussen’s own Violin Concerto (2002). At 15 minutes, the piece has the density of content of a work twice its length – something achieved less through formal compression as such than by a concentration on formal and expressive essentials. All the salient ideas are duly set-out in the ‘Recitative’, before being elaborated (never discursively so) in the ‘Aria’, then informed by a sense of the capricious in the ‘Gigue’. The orchestra, while having more of an evidently accompanying role than in the earlier Horn Concerto, is alive with subtleties of nuance: an imaginative context for the solo part which, as rendered by Leila Josefowicz,was less overtly soloistic in manner than with dedicatee Pinchas Zukerman and more appropriate in its effortlessly unfolding dialogue (the presence of Elliott Carter readily perceptible) between equals. And, infrequent though Knussen compositions may be, their powers of invention remain undimmed.

Hans Werner Henze has had considerable exposure at the Proms across the last half-century, with this UK premiere of a recent and characteristic orchestral work his second appearance in this season alone (Ragtime and Habaneras made it into “Brass Day”). A ‘translation’ into music of a typically intense and introspective poem by Expressionist writer Georg Trakl, Sebastian im Traum (2004) continues Henze’s longstanding preoccupation with Austro-German culture: a ‘love-hate’ relationship at the centre of a composing career that now stretches over six decades. Appreciable as an evocative (though not merely illustrative) tone poem and also a typically oblique take on sonata procedure, the 14-minute piece leaves a haunting if diffuse impression itself typical of Henze’s music of recent years: ideas unfolding not so much as a stream of consciousness but rather as a series of associations whose resonance is that of a time more of the imagination than of reality. The present performance, unfailingly lucid, had that dream-like quality down to a tee.

However dream-like its genesis may (or may not) have been, The Rite of Spring is expression of an altogether more visceral kind. Not heard at the Proms until after the Second War, its appearances have since been numerous but this one stood out for two reasons in particular. First, through Knussen’s recourse to the 1943 edition which, though it may facilitate performance and streamline orchestration in line with Stravinsky’s later thinking, has been neglected next to his similarly comprehensive overhauls of The Firebird and Petrushka. The textural variants are many and varied – most notably in the climactic ‘Sacrificial Dance’, re-notated to the extent that its metrical profile feels disorientating in context.

What the revision does encourage is a greater fluidity in the control of expressive tension over the course of each half – herein the second reason for the special authority evinced by this performance. Absent was any tendency to over-emphasis – overkill, indeed – that affects more self-consciously virtuoso readings, allowing the music to make its impact through the uncompromising nature of its content. An approach the BBC Symphony Orchestra clearly relished with playing that, while not flawless in ensemble, had an incisiveness and vitality that was in itself an act of ‘restoration’ as valid as any carried out in the name of authenticity. 2013 will no doubt see a plethora of would-be-authentic ‘Rites’, but they will be hard-put to equal the conviction and inner concentration so amply and gratifyingly conveyed here.

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